Holiday with a difference – 3 sighted guides tell their stories
This is quite a long post today, but once I’d done the research, I didn’t want to leave anything out!
I met Helen from New Zealand, Jane from the UK, and Clara from the US on holidays that I booked through Traveleyes, a holiday company that organises holidays for blind and sighted travellers. The sighted travellers pay a discounted price, and in return they act as guides for the blind travellers.
The holidays gave me the chance to explore new places and meant that I didn’t have to rely on my family and friends wanting to go to the same places as me!
I met Jane on my first ever Traveleyes holiday to Spain, and we stayed in touch, meeting up a couple of times after the holiday for theatre visits and a trip to London.
I met Clara and Helen on a trip to Kas in Turkey. You can see a picture of one of my adventures with Helen as the header image on this post. We went shopping together and mastered some difficult terrain on a hike, which included crossing an old aqueduct with very big drops on either side!
Clara is pictured below and I too remember the race she described. We laughed so much that day! I’d decided that overtaking on the inside was not allowed!
I asked Jane, Clara and Helen 10 questions. Here are their answers:
1. How did you hear about opportunities to be a sighted guide on holidays for visually impaired people?
What made you decide to go on one?
Jane: in the mid-2000s, I was listening to Radio 4’s ‘In Touch’ programme one evening and heard an interview with someone who had recently set up a company providing holidays for people with sight impairment. My circumstances had changed some time before I heard the broadcast, meaning that I would be going on future holidays by myself. Being a sighted guide on a holiday for people with impaired vision seemed like a good way of going on holiday by myself but not being alone. I knew that I would be involved with what was going on and would not be left out or feel isolated.
Clara: I heard about Traveleyes from reading a travel article (I honestly can’t remember which one) and thought it would be an excellent way to go someplace new that I didn’t feel comfortable going to by myself. After reading the Traveleyes website I was sold! I felt like it would help me see destinations in a different and more detailed way and I felt like it would be a great way to meet new people.
Helen: I found Traveleyes through a link on a travel website (can’t remember which one). I was looking to have a week somewhere not too far from the UK. I am from New Zealand and was planning a trip to see my son and his family and was going to be there for a month. It is probably not every girl’s dream to have her mother in law staying for a month so I thought a week somewhere else was probably a good idea! I was immediately struck by the brilliance of the concept and signed up for a trip to Turkey which I had always wanted to visit.
2. What are some of the places that you have visited on this type of holiday?
Helen: I have been to Fes in Turkey, Sorrento in Italy, and most recently to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. In a few weeks I will join Traveleyes for a trip to Iceland for a week.
Jane: I have been on four holidays with the same company. I went to Andalucia, Crete, Rhodes and Sicily.
Clara: I went to Turkey, and did a horse-riding trip in Berkshire with Traveleyes.
3. Has the experience taught you anything about the way that you appreciate the world around you?
Clara: I learned that there is a lot more in our environments than what we first see. When traveling with someone who is visually impaired, I found myself wanting to see every detail so I could describe whatever my traveling companion was interested in. This meant I experienced the environment around me much more intensely.
Helen: I’m sure that I have experienced these places in a different and more in depth way while being a sighted guide than I would have if I had been travelling on my own or even with another sighted person. When you have to tell someone what you are looking at you really have to think about it, and take into account what they might be interested in.
I have also relatively recently taken up painting and this gives me an added dimension to the sights as I am always thinking about how I could paint something. Of course travelling is not only about seeing places or things, but experiencing them in many ways.
The trips are planned to give a wide variety of experiences and Traveleyes is good at taking into account the sighted guides as well as the Vis (visually impaired people).
Jane: when I was describing the surroundings to someone who had a sight impairment, I tried to include all the details that might interest them. The times that were the most absorbing were those when the other person and I were both particularly enthusiastic about what we were looking at.
4. Did you find that different blind people were interested in different information?
Helen: because you change partners each day you will also be changing the way you are describing things and having different conversations with each person. Blind people, just like everyone else, are individuals and have different interests, tastes, experiences and backgrounds. I remember a shopping trip with one woman who loved jewellery and another day with a guy who was really interested in the local food. I was happy with both those interests!
It’s great when there is an opportunity for tactile interaction – whether it is with something organic like plants or animals or even rocks, or something man-made such as statues, jewellery or ceramics. Swimming in hot pools or the warm ocean is another great thing for VIs – nothing to trip over!
There is also always plenty of time just for chat with your partner – about your life and theirs – interests, family, work etc just as with anyone you have just met and will be spending time with.
Jane: when I was on holiday in Crete, one person was really interested in an archaeological site and so was I. Someone else just wanted to go shopping. One young woman told me that I was talking too much, so we agreed that I would limit the information to details about where there were steps – up or down – and uneven ground.
Clara: I learned to ask my traveling companion what they would like described to them and what they wanted to experience when we were first paired together. Some of my companions had sight at some point in their life, so they might know what certain things (objects, colours, animals, etc.) looked like. Others were born blind so everything had to be described in terms they did understand. And some companions had limited sight. A lot of questions were asked. Overall, every traveling companion wanted to know and learn about something different. The majority of my traveling companions didn’t really care about colour. I had traveling companions who wanted to touch things to feel the shapes and textures. Some companions were more interested in the local food. Some were more interested in talking with the local residents.
5. Did you have any worries or concerns before you went on your first holiday?
Jane: I was concerned about not being good enough at guiding people but I seemed to manage just as well as the other guides. In addition, I worried about not fitting in; however, that worry was also ill-founded and I made friends on the holidays and am still in touch with some of them.
Clara: I had no idea what I was getting into other than what I had read on the Traveleyes website. I was definitely nervous that I wouldn’t be a good guide. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to describe things correctly, or that I wouldn’t warn my companion about a step and that they would trip and fall. It turned out that I really shouldn’t have worried at all. As soon as I met my traveling companions I found that all my concerns disappeared.
Helen: I was a little nervous that I would get things wrong, but when I met the first group at the airport, Amar (the owner and founder of Traveleyes), took me through the simple guiding procedures and I quite quickly got comfortable with it. Of course there are slight adjustments to be made with each partner, but with goodwill on both sides it is pretty quickly sorted out.
6. Have you had any funny guiding experiences that you could tell us about?
Helen: on one particular day in Fes I remember going for a walk with a guy and commenting on things along the way. When it came time to return to the town centre I got confused as to where we were but he was able to guide me! He had to rely on his memory and was used to navigating that way – I wasn’t.
Later that same day I was so concerned with watching where we were walking – the ground was uneven and I remember we were walking along the front of some shops and had to step down to the street. This guy was pretty tall and I forgot to look up so he banged his head on the eaves which were quite low. He forgave me later after I bought him a beer!
In Ecuador a very helpful waiter handed one of our group a braille menu. Our VI said he was very grateful, but did they by chance have one in English braille! Unfortunately they didn’t.
Clara: One of my favourite memories was running with Kirsty! Honestly, I couldn’t believe that she trusted me enough to win the race! Another favourite memory is horseback riding. I was helping my companion navigate through some trees and looking behind me, and in the process I ran straight into a branch myself! I definitely felt silly!
Jane: I guided one lady back to her room at the end of one day out and left her at her front door, searching for her key. Unfortunately, I had taken her to someone else’s front door and had left her before she realised she was in the wrong place. Luckily, she managed to find her way back to her own room – and I always check that the person is in the right place before I leave him or her.
7. What are some differences in the type and amount of assistance that people need?
Clara: Something I learned on my first trip was that every companion liked to be guided differently. Some liked holding hands, others liked holding onto a shoulder, others my bag, and others liked holding onto my elbow. Honestly, I didn’t really feel like I was assisting, but more like I was just hanging out with friends or experiencing something new with friends.
Jane: some people hardly needed any assistance at all. Maybe they just wanted to be able to walk by my side and to be told, ‘step down’, ‘kerb up’, ‘tree roots’, ‘uneven ground’. Other people would hold my arm, so that they could be guided. I would give them the ‘step down’, ‘kerb up’ commentary, if they wanted it. The important thing is to ask what assistance people need. On one occasion, I shared a room with one friend who has no sight. One day she was searching for something on the dressing table but could not find it, so she asked me where it was and I explained.
Helen: there are VIs who have lost their sight later in life, some who were born without sight and others who have varying degrees of sight, so they all need slightly different assistance. Those who have recently lost sight might for instance often need more than those who have never experienced anything else, as they are getting used to it. However it is generally easier to describe something to them as it can often be related to something they might remember. Some might need very little physical assistance but can’t read menus. Dealing with foreign currency can be tricky too.
8. What was your favourite excursion, and why?
Jane: I enjoyed all of the holidays and everything that we did on them. The company was good, the food was delicious and the sun always seemed to shine!
Helen: it’s hard to pick a favourite because each trip has been so different. If pressed I would probably say my first trip to Turkey. We were in a fairly small town at the end of the season and we were made so welcome by the locals. It was great weather and we experienced a good mix of activity and leisure.
Sorrento was brilliant too. I loved the cooking lesson there and would love to do that on every trip. Visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum was a real highlight for me, as was the limoncello.
Ecuador and the Galapagos was probably the favourite in terms of destination. It was the longest trip I’ve done and we did a lot of moving – never more than 2 nights in one place – and that is quite tiring. But to go to such an amazing and interesting place was an absolute dream come true.
Clara: my favourite excursion was the hike in Kas, Turkey. I think this is one of my favourites because there were so many obstacles (rocks, bushes, pokey branches, narrow trails, etc.) but there was this sense of challenge that everyone took up and conquered.
9. What are some of the things that you have learned about visually impaired people and how they do things after going on the holidays?
Clara: One of my first discoveries was on my very first trip as a sighted guide at the airport when I was helping my traveling companion exchange money. The person on the other side of the counter wanted to work with me, not my companion. I discovered it was because they could look into my eyes and communicate when they couldn’t do that with my traveling companion, and that made them uncomfortable. Through that experience, I learned that visually impaired people have many more obstacles than I imagined to navigate when they are traveling. On my trips I learned that the visually impaired people I was traveling with were much more independent than I thought they would be. I learned that order is important. I learned that it might take a few more minutes to accomplish a travel task, but that was ok because time wasn’t to be rushed when on holiday. And, on a funny note, I learned that when you show your traveling companions to their hotel room, you don’t have to show them where the light switches are.
Jane: ask people what sort of assistance they need, do not assume that someone needs assistance and force it on them. Say who you are when you speak to someone who cannot see you – do not expect them to guess. Say when you are leaving the room, so that the person knows you have gone and is not left talking to him- or herself. Some of my best friends are people I met on the holidays I went on.
Helen: I have been so impressed with pretty much every VI I have met on these holidays. All those I’ve met are so independent and outgoing. I guess they would not take part in such trips if they were not, but I know many sighted people who need more assistance than most of the VIs I’ve met. I think one of the things that a sighted guide has to remember is that you are not the first person to have described something to this person, or to have tried to explain something. It’s easy to forget but it makes it much easier if you just have conversations as you would with any person, while bearing in mind that they can’t see. Most guides get into the swing of things pretty quickly and if not I guess they don’t do it again!
10. Would you recommend a holiday as a sighted guide to other people?
Helen: Absolutely recommend it! Partly for me it is because I would otherwise be travelling on my own and it is great to have the company – and the organisation that goes with a guided tour. It’s a great way to see somewhere a bit different / difficult to get to as everything is so well organised.
One thing I do like to do is to get my own room. That does make the trip a bit more expensive but for me it is worth it. I am so used to living on my own that I would find sharing a room with a complete stranger – especially for longer trips – rather hard.
Clara: I would, (and have) highly recommend a holiday as a sighted guide. In my experience I have become more humble, I have pushed my own boundaries, and I have made lifelong friends. I had the opportunity to bring adventure and smiles and laughter and learning to my traveling companions. I have learned about a world that I can’t touch but in that same world are so many friends who I admire. Before my trips as a sighted guide so many wonderful sights and experiences escaped me. I have never looked at the environment around me the same since my very first trip as a sighted guide and that is a true gift.
Jane: I would recommend a holiday as a sighted guide. It is a good way of seeing new places and of appreciating those places from a different angle. Going on an organised holiday with people who have vision impairment means that you will get the opportunity to touch things – like archaeological treasures – to smell things, taste things and be involved with activities, such as cookery lessons, whereas you might not get the same chances as a sighted person on a run-of-the-mill holiday.
So what do you think?
Does this type of holiday appeal to you? Have you done anything like this before? Let me know in the comments. I may publish some posts about Traveleyes trips from my point of view, but this post is long enough already!
Thanks to my wonderful interviewees for giving such interesting and detailed answers.
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